Where are all the books?

Shortly after moving to Kosova I googled “poetry in Peja” to look for poetry events, and the fourth link that showed up was one of my blogs. Apparently I am on the cutting edge of the poetry scene in Peja.

That is to say, if there is a poetry scene in Peja I haven’t found it yet. It used to bother me that the writing scene in Peja is apparently nonexistent. Then again I was coming from an American city of three million and studying literature in a university, where I was constantly inundated with creative writing workshops, poetry readings by famous authours, excellent libraries, and publishing houses right down the street. It was a good place to be writing and reading. But not a fair comparison with a small city in Kosova.

Now I’ve gotten used to a different life, different pleasures and pastimes: like the quietness of the Rugova mountains, the thickness of Turkish coffee, the warmth of Albanian hospitality—things that can only be experienced here and not in a major North American city.

While drinking coffee with a Kosovar girl once, she told me that she loves poetry and I asked her why she doesn’t study literature. She answered: “We have to choose professions we can survive on. we can’t choose to study writing, because who would buy our books?”

She’s right. The Libraria (book stores) here have only a rack or two of books each, and I walked around to three different ones last week asking for a Shqip (Albanian) dictionary and came up with nothing. There were plenty of English to Albanian dictionaries, but not one store knew of a place in a city of 100,000 to buy a dictionary that celebrated the richness of their own language. “Try Prishtina,” one of my friends told me.

Prishtina, the capital, is where I go for the only art store I have found in Kosovo, and where there is also a real bookstore with two floors of books, and where there is supposedly a music scene. Then there is also the popular café, Dit’ e Nat’ (night and day), apparently frequented by artists. The walls of the café are lined with books. “It feels like you’re in America,” someone told me.

In search of the hidden books of Kosova, my roommate and I explored the famous library in Prishtina. It was designed in the sixties by an Albanian architect. The Serbians loved the design, and only after building it did they ask the architect what the unique metal cage-looking design meant. He told them that it signified the caged minds of the Albanian people by the Serbians. Unfortunately, my friend and I wandered through the building fruitlessly, without finding any books that weren’t in special display cases. We asked another friend later if we had somehow missed where the books were. “There aren’t any,” he told us. The Prishtina library is full of young people, but not books for them to read. 

We also attempted to visit the local library in Peja, but only found some shelves of English books at the end of a hallway. We thought it was the same story with the Prishtina library, but then my language tutor persuaded me there were actually books in Albanian there that I just hadn’t found, and a few weeks later I ventured again alone.

After knocking on what looked like office doors, I was met by some librarians who were delighted to have an American visit their library. One of them toured me through the book room, pointing out Albanian poets on the way since I had expressed an interest in poetry. It was just one small room of books, but at least it was something. I left with a library card and some Albanian classics that I didn’t manage to finish because really I was being too ambitious about my Albanian reading level. But at least I tried.

Since then I have found Kosovar Albanians who enjoy reading, such as my language tutor whose family has a collection of books in their home which functions like an unofficial village library. Once I found a translated copy of Byron poetry under my host sister’s bed, with the classic picture of Byron on the cover, clad in Albanian traditional dress. One of my English students sent me poems over facebook that he had written. He was the last student I would have expected to be a writer, which I suppose is where you find the best ones, in the least likely of places.

In Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle, I read that vocabulary is always lost in a war. Amidst the chaos and trauma, words are lost. My friend who is from Northern Albania, right across the border from Kosova, is always talking about how much she used to read as a child.

“It’s not like now, when everyone is on their phones and watching television,” she says, “we used to just read. Nobody reads anymore.” She mentioned this once to a Kosovar Albanian man, who like her is also in his forties. He agreed, and said that he read a lot as a boy too. He is a teacher now and bemoaned the current generation’s reading and writing ability. The current high schoolers were born during the war. The university students were young children in the war. Those under 15 years did not experience life before the war. They only know post-war Kosova: its good and its bad.

I remember learning in history class that arts and culture could only be developed in a society once there was leisure time. Only once the survival needs had been met could time and energy be focused on sitting down to write a story or make a painting. During a war survival is everything. There was a time in Kosova when that took precedence. Although it appears stable now, the country is still pulling itself out of survival mode. It does not mean that arts and culture do not exist and have not existed and thrived in the past, but it takes time to regain that position. The Albanians have been subjugated by others for most of modern history. Perhaps there is a lot to recover.

I’d like to see a writing revolution happen in this generation in Kosova, because I think they have it in them. The streets of this city are flooded with youth at midday when school is getting out. This is the youngest country in Europe, full of potential. I passed two buildings yesterday where new graffiti had been added on the walls, written: “Albanians love art.” It seems there is a creative hunger in this generation.

However, as I’ve often experienced with myself, good writing starts with good reading. In Kosova, the gheg dialect of Albanian poses a problem for literacy. In school they are learning to read and write in the tosk dialect from Albania, but the way they express themselves on the streets, in their homes, and in their hearts is quite different. How can they put those words into writing?

Kosovar Albanians need to reclaim vocabulary that is lost or else create something new. Dante was the first to try writing literature in Italian rather than Latin, and he came up with the Divine Comedy, a poetic masterpiece. Through his courage to put the vernacular Italian to paper he changed the course of Italian history and the nature of the language itself.

Kosovars must reconcile more even than the differences between tosk and gheg. They also have a rich selection of other languages at their fingertips: a mixture of stray words from borrowed Turkish, Serbian, English, German, Italian, and Arabic. Albanian is a European language in a branch all its own, but with years of history infused into it from the influence of its neighbours and subjugators.

Why not use the uniqueness of their history to their advantage? Why not strike out in boldness like Dante to bring the language of their streets to life in print? I think it’s time that the people of Kosova find their way to the pages of the world, armed with words.

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